Chaos and the Psychological Symbolism of the Tarot
by Gerald Schueler, Ph.D. © 1997
The Tarot deck contains archetypal symbols that can be related to the analytical psychology of the Swiss psychologist, Carl Jung. The Tarot deck, especially the major arcana or trump cards, can be used effectively in therapy. The client, with the assistance of the therapist, conducts a reading or uses several cards to tell a story and then discusses possible meanings of the symbols in his or her own words. The therapist then relates the symbolic meanings given by the client to the client's problem in much the same manner as in Jungian dream analysis. This therapeutic process can be explained by using a chaos model. Using a chaos model of therapy, a period of psychic instability is deliberately induced by the therapist through stimulation of the imagination via the Tarot symbols. Concentration on the Tarot symbols induces bifurcation points that the therapist then uses to direct change toward desired attractors. This is similar to the well-known techniques of paradoxical communication, paradoxical intervention, and prescribing the symptom, all of which induce a temporary condition of psychic instability that is required for a bifurcation.
Loye and Eisler (1987) see the roots of modern chaos theory, as it pertains to social science, extending all the way back to the ancient Chinese Book of Changes or I Ching. The I Ching, the oldest oracle still in use today, (Bannister, 1988) was used to make predictions by casting stalks, straws, or sticks. Today, this is usually done by throwing coins (Cleary, 1986). In the West, the oldest oracle still in use today is the Tarot card deck.
The Tarot is a deck of cards which can be used for meditation, psychic stimulation, or divination. It also can be used as a psychological tool to look inside the unconscious (Bannister, 1988; Nichols, 1984). The Tarot is medieval man's equivalent of today's highly respected Rorschach and Thematic Apperception tests (Schueler & Schueler, 1994). Wang (1978) describes the Tarot as "a system accepted by many respectable sources such as the school of Carl Jung, which views the Tarot images as agreeing perfectly with the archetypes of the collective unconsciousness" (p. 8).
The Swiss psychologist, Carl Jung, saw all of the Tarot images as "descended from the archetypes of transformation" (Jung, 1959/1990, p. 38). These archetypes include several of the primary archetypes that are encountered during Jung's individuation process, a process of psychological maturation similar in nature to the aging of the physical body (Jacobi, 1942/1973). These include the shadow, the anima and animus, and the wise old man. The Tarot also contains symbols representing other important archetypes of transformative processes such as the hero, the sacrifice, rebirth, the mother, and the Self. In Jung's analytical psychology, these archetypes comprise the major dynamical components of the unconscious which affect the human psyche in many different ways.
Modern chaos theory addresses complex systems, which are systems with a large number of interrelated parts. It also addresses dynamic systems. Every complex system, and especially every living system (living systems are usually referred to as self-organizing systems), is also a dissipative structure. Ilya Prigogine won the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1977 for his work on dissipative structures, which he defined as any structure that takes on and dissipates energy as it interacts with its environment. A dissipative system, unlike one that conserves energy, gives rise to irreversible processes such as the growth of organisms (Nicolis & Prigogine, 1989). All systems that exhibit disequilibrium and self-organization are dissipative and have a dissipative structure (Briggs & Peat, 1989, p. 138). Dissipative systems are those which are able to maintain identity only because they are open to flows of energy, matter, or information from their environments (Prigogine & Stengers, 1984).
Not only is our body a dissipative system, but our psyche as well. Jung designated the ego as an ego-complex, because of the numerous components and processes with which it is comprised, and taught that the ego was one of many complexes that exist in the psyche. "The psyche is a self-regulating system that maintains its equilibrium just as the body does" (Jung, 1954/1985, p. 152). Designating the psyche to be a self-regulating system, Jung (1968) states that "Dreams are the natural reaction of the self-regulating psychic system" ( p. 124). By assuming the psyche to be a complex dynamic system, as well as a dissipative system, we can look at it through the lens of modern chaos theory.
Chaos, as an archetype, is well known in the Tarot where it is depicted fully in card 16, a trump card titled the Lightening Struck Tower. According to Wanless (1986), this card represents transformation. Jung taught that we can become conscious of the unconscious contents in our psyche by examining the symbols that come to us in our dreams. He details many of these archetypal symbols in his Symbols of Transformation (1956).